Why You Might Want Your Face in Google’s Ads


Everybody is outraged — OUTRAGED! — that Google will soon start using their names and faces in advertising.

The pundits are screaming bloody murder over the move, suggesting that Google is now as bad as Facebook. The more constructive critics are scrambling to give instructions for opting out.

But all this gnashing of teeth and ripping of hair over Google’s new social ad policy is misguided, in my opinion. I’ll tell you why Google’s new “shared endorsements” is probably a good thing, but also how it could turn out to suck.

But first, let me tell you what this is really all about and why “shared endorsements” is probably a good thing.

What the Critics Are Doing and Saying

Some users are protesting Google’s move by replacing their profile picture with that of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. It’s called getting Schmidt-faced, and the best reason to do it is because it’s called getting Schmidt-faced.

Others are just complaining about it and trying to foment a general uprising against the move. Quartz, for example, called it “creepy.”

It’s Fun to be Outraged, but What Are the Facts?

Danny Sullivan wrote a nice FAQ on “shared endorsements.”

But in a nutshell, here’s what it’s all about. On November 11, Google will start adding names, Google+ profile pictures and partial comments of over-18 users in small thumbnail size to paid advertisements and in other contexts under specific conditions. First, the user pictured in the ad must have plus-oned, positively reviewed, shared, circled a brand’s Google+ page, commented on a brand’s Google+ page or posted about that product publicly. Second, the viewer of the ad must be in at least one Google+ circle of the person shown in the ad as an endorser.

Why You Should Neither Freak nor Opt Out. (Yet.)

The critical narrative about all this is that Facebook launched their sleazy “Sponsored Stories” policy some time ago and that now Google is doing the same Facebookish thing.

This is a false narrative because Facebook’s social ads are evil for 4 specific reasons, and Google’s “shared endorsements” share none of these qualities. Here are the creepy things Facebook does that Google probably won’t:

1. Facebook didn’t let you opt out. When Facebook launched “Sponsored Stories” in 2011, users couldn’t opt out. And this is the main source of the very bad reputation that social advertising still has today. It took a $20 million class-action lawsuit to force Facebook to add that basic feature. Most Facebook users appear to be completely unaware of the policy and the opt-out. Google makes it easy to opt-out on the Settings page. (They have also updated their Terms of Service.)

2. Facebook lies. The biggest problem with Facebook’s social ads is that they lie, telling your family and friends that you “Like” something you never “Liked.” My friend is a vocal and committed liberal and democrat, and Facebook told all his friends he endorsed Mitt Romney in the last election. Facebook told all the family and friends of my 14-year-old niece that she “Likes” AT&T and BlackBerry, when in fact she lives in another country (where AT&T doesn’t exist) and has only ever used an iPhone.

3. Facebook exploits minors. My 14-year-old niece’s Facebook profile clearly and publicly says that she’s 14, yet Facebook went ahead and used her face and name to sell products without her knowledge or explicit permission or her parents’ permission. You need to be 13 to use Facebook and Google+, but Facebook exploits the endorsement of minors — people who are legally children — and this should be illegal. Google says their “shared endorsements” will be legal adults 18 or older exclusively.

4. Facebook puts the ads in your social stream. When you’re using a social network, you’re in the psychological mode of checking out what your family and friends are up to. And it’s into this context that Facebook places its social ads — not just off to the side where the ads go, but directly into the stream as a fake post where the status updates go. Google+, of course, has zero advertising. It’s “shared endorsements” appear in the context of advertising on other sites.

There are other reasons to neither freak nor opt out.

First, “shared endorsements” aren’t really all that new. Google has been using your face and name in social ads for two years. The difference is that now they’re moving beyond just items you’ve +1’d, and expanding it to include other types of activity. (If you had previously opted out of +1 endorsements, your opt-out will be automatically extended to shared endorsements.) Your public activity — posts, +1s, reviews and so on — have been publicly available and shown to your circles in their Google Search results for two years. Google’s increasingly personalized search results always favors the posts of your social circles in results.

Second, your profile picture, name and comments will not be shown to people you haven’t already shared them with. Only people you have circled on Google+ will see your “endorsement.”

I posted this short review of an L.A. Restaurant called Cafe Midi this week. I also +1’d the page and uploaded three pictures. All reviews are public, so my choice to post the review made my words, pictures and recommendations available to anyone searching Google Search, anyone using Google Maps, anyone using Google+ and anyone using the Local mobile app. If Cafe Midi buys an ad, my friend is shown that ad and the ad says I “endorse” this restaurant, that’s hardly an invasion of my privacy. If one of my relatives is searching for a restaurant in L.A., and my endorsement shows up on the listing in Google Maps, well, I actually want them to do that.

Third, it’s also worth noting that advertising-supported social services are a social good. I detailed this opinion here. But in a nutshell, for-pay services exclude the poor, both domestically and globally. Ad-supported sites (like Google’s services) invite everyone to participate, even if they can’t afford to buy advertised products and even if they opt out for whatever reason they choose.

Participating in Google’s ad system is how we pay for the use of their excellent services. You’d have to carry a pathological sense of entitlement to believe that the world owes you Internet services — that other people should devote their lives to creating things which you don’t have to pay for in any way.

I can’t speak for you, but I’m not opting out of “shared endorsements” because I actually want to “pay” for Google+ in the same way I would voluntarily pay for freeware I use and enjoy. I would much rather Google make money by extending the number of people who see what I have deliberately and publicly made available than by polluting my social network with advertising.

If Google does what they say they’ll do, then I want to reward them for doing it right in the same way that I want to punish Facebook for doing it wrong.

How This Could All Go South

My recommendation to not freak out is conditional. So far, Google is saying the right things. But it’s what they actually do that matters.

What they are claiming to do is actually very hard to do, and it’s possible Google will fail to do it right.

For example, Google’s algorithms may confuse humor and irony with “endorsement.” I’m a health nut who posts a lot of criticism about junk food, some of it sarcastic or ironic. For example, I posted this item about Taco Bell serving Mountain Dew for breakfast. It seems likely that under Google’s new “shared endorsements” I might be shown endorsing this product or company, which was the opposite of my intent.

Also: We change our minds. Maybe we love a restaurant now, but next year it changes owners and now we hate. Will Google use very old social activity?

Google could make other mistakes, too. For example, it’s possible that like Facebook they’ll include minors in their program. Who knows? Failure is always an option.

Yes, it’s possible that Google could screw this up royally. But so far, they’re doing it right. And the critics freaking out, calling “social endorsements” creepy and advising people to opt out is misguided.

Let’s wait and see.